To former teammate Louis Saha, he is known simply as ‘the cyborg’. With over 400 appearances in the Premier League – the most of any foreign outfield player – and still starting consistently at the heart of the joint second best defence in the league at age 36, it does seem that Sylvain Distin’s capabilities are far greater than the rest of us. And he doesn’t show signs of stopping any time soon.
When Everton signed the 31 year-old Distin for £5m from Portsmouth in 2009, there was many a raised eyebrow. Having just sold Joleon Lescott to Manchester City for £24m, Everton also purchased Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Johnny Heitinga for £9m and £6.2m respectively. At the time, many predicted that the latter two players would prove to be better purchases for Everton. As it has transpired, the Frenchman has outshone and outlasted the pair.
To those still yearning for the easy answers in life, you will be sad to learn that Distin’s longevity is not attributable to any sort of fluke. The Frenchman works incredibly hard on his fitness, apparently unwilling to accept that the sands of time are against him. Every summer, he returns two weeks early from his holidays in order to put himself through a grueling training camp, and during the season he insists on taking extra sessions in the gym. Everton’s Head of Sports Science and Conditioning, Steve Tashjian, admits his biggest problem with Distin is discouraging the defender from over-training.
This meticulous attention to one’s physical condition has enabled Distin to retain his pace well into his thirties. Testament to this fact is how well the Frenchman has performed in Roberto Martinez’s team that requires its defenders to play a high defensive line. It was widely speculated that Martinez might struggle at Everton due to his Wigan side’s seeming inability to defend. The reality, of course, has been quite the opposite. And one of the chief factors in this change in fortunes is Distin’s abilities of recovery.
At Wigan, Martinez operated a similarly high defensive line – albeit often with three central defenders – to fairly disastrous ends. Last season, they conceded 73 goals, the joint highest amount in the division. Part of the reason for this was the immobility of their centre backs – such as Gary Caldwell – who couldn’t get back once teams had successfully played balls into the space behind them.
However, at Everton, Martinez has been able to rely on the pace of Distin to get them out of trouble, and the difference in results have been startling. In their 27 league games, Everton have conceded just 27 goals. This is the same number that Manchester City have let past them, and just four more than Chelsea. While John Terry has been heavily lauded for his performance this seasons, Distin’s work has largely gone unsung.
This fact seems particularly unjust when you compare the two systems that the two players operate in. Chelsea’s deep defensive line allows Terry to do most of his work with his back to goal – the position in which all defenders feel more comfortable – and their counter-attacking approach does not require the centre-back to do too much work with the ball. Things are quite the opposite at Everton, where Distin is regularly called up to defend while running towards his own goal and Everton’s pro-active approach means the offensive demands are all the much greater as well.
It’s a cruel fact that in spite of the extra efforts that the Frenchman puts into his fitness, Distin’s good work seems destined to go unheralded. Despite being a regular at every Premier League side he has played for over the past 10 years, the defender has never received a call-up to his national side. While it may be too late for Distin get a cap for Les Blues, it’s still not to late to start giving him the credit he deserves.